The Church: Building Bridges Among the Body of Christ
In continuing my series on The Church: Building Bridges, I am honored to have my eldest daughter guest post in this series. She is a wonderful woman of God who truly seeks to honor the Lord with her life. She is wonderful at building dialogue and really trying to create understanding between individuals and groups.
I hope you come away with a bigger perspective and insight in this series on Building Bridges. Please welcome my daughter, Hannah.
Institutional church and I have a complicated relationship. Like, “How do I condense this into a 1200-word blog post?!” kind of complicated. I don’t share my church story very often with other Christians because far too often it’s met with a pat answer quoting Hebrews 10 or admonishing me that I must not love God if I have a problem with his church. Building bridges between the churched and the unchurched, though, means I need to let down my walls a little bit and trust that the other side is going to truly listen. So for those of you who are listening, THANK YOU. Here goes.
I grew up an extremely faithful churchgoer. I was there every Sunday morning, as well as most Sunday evenings and Wednesdays. I’m not sure I could say I ever got anything out of going to church. It was just something I did because I was a Christian and that’s what we do.
Now, keep in mind I definitely had encounters with God. They just always happened outside of church. Even the Christians I was closest to were people I met elsewhere. The longer I attended, the more I felt like my personal relationship with God and my churchgoing had little to no impact on each other.
I felt more and more disconnected from my local body of believers. I suspect I’d always been disconnected, but I finally became aware of it. I started noticing the differences between myself and those around me. Unlike everyone else, I didn’t get anything out of church, I was extremely passionate about art, and as an introvert I dreaded the many social tasks expected of me as a committed Christian. But instead of feeling like this gave me a unique place to fill in the body of Christ, I just felt like maybe I didn’t belong here at all.
This is where the church-related anxiety started.
I started taking “breaks” from church, and every time I decided to stay home, it was like a weight was lifted off my chest. But then it would come time for me to go back the next week, and that weight would get heavier. I dreaded more than anything having to answer questions about why I hadn’t been there the week before. I spent hours crafting replies that wouldn’t make me sound like a “backslider.” I was fully confident in the strength of my own relationship with Christ, but almost every time I tried to question with a churchgoer why church was so difficult for me, the responses were stern lectures that made me feel guiltier and more desperate than ever to withdraw.
Over the years, that church anxiety has never gone away. I’ve moved several times since then and tried new churches, thinking maybe this time it would be different, but no, every time, the anxiety comes back, sometimes dissolving me into terrified tears as early as Saturday morning, knowing I’m going to have to go the next day just to prove to people I’m still a Christian. Sometimes I pushed past the anxiety and went anyway and came home shaken and exhausted from trying to fit in. Sometimes I gave up and stayed home and felt so much better until the guilt set in.
I’ve had friends leave the institutional church for theological reasons. For me, church just became… unsafe.
So Now What?
A few years ago a pastor asked me on Facebook about my church anxiety and what he could do to help people like me. At the time I don’t know if I gave any kind of coherent answer. Frankly, I don’t even know if this is a problem with the church itself or just me and my own hang-ups. Probably a little bit of both.
So where do we go from here?
Well, I can tell you what I’m working on on my end. I’m working on getting some medical help for my anxiety issues in general, because maybe that’ll overflow into church anxiety. I’m trying to make a point of attending church any time I feel brave enough to go (the last few years, this has meant about once every four months). I’m working on letting down some of my walls and trusting that not everyone in the church is as judgmental as me, and I need to give them a chance not to be.
As far as what the rest of the church can do, there are two tenets of the faith that I think most Christians would say they believed but that aren’t being put into action enough. The Christian people and communities that have been my best example of true fellowship both lived these beliefs out every day.
Two important tenents of the faith.
The Beauty of Diversity.
The first of these tenets is the beauty of diversity among the body of Christ, that each person has a unique gift from God that makes them not only helpful but essential to the body. Too often our ministering opportunities are incredibly restricted: teaching, worship team, children’s program, and “service” ministry (setting up tables, cleaning up, cooking meals, that kind of thing). You fit into those ministries or you don’t serve.
In my case, I’ve often had to push my way into using my theater-related, arts-loving gifts in the church, and even then nobody thought it was really important. If I leave my church and there’s no more drama team, is that a serious problem? I’d have said yes, I suspect my church would say no. If my specific gifts don’t matter, why do I specifically matter? And why go someplace where I don’t matter?
Living in a fallen world.
The second piece of doctrine is even more central to the faith and therefore more damaging when it’s only given lip service and not actually acted on. This is the idea that we are all sinners and living in a fallen world. We say this ALL THE TIME, but somehow the institutional church gets super stuck when it comes to actually dealing with the brokenness of people. We often have two extremes — either we come down really hard on sin (which makes me feel perpetually broken and fills me with self-loathing), or we gloss over it entirely (which doesn’t give anyone a chance to get better). When I mess up, I KNOW I’ve messed up and I don’t need someone sternly lecturing me about it. I can’t change what I’ve already done. I need someone to be there with me to help me pick up the pieces, to remind me I’m not beyond repair, and to support me as I move forward.
Thank you to those of you who read this far. That ties into the final thing I think we can be doing in our churches to help mend this gap:
Listen to each other.
I am doing my best to listen to and trust those who have found amazing churches. It keeps me from feeling bitter because I’ve seen things from their point of view and have a story of hope. And I hope stories like mine will keep people from being angry at or judgmental of those of us who struggle with church, because now you’ve seen things from my point of view. Sometimes it all starts by just listening, and even if I don’t have a lot of good solid answers, maybe some of you do and can work toward paving an easier path for people like me to come back.